Reward prediction error in the ERP following unconditioned aversive stimuli

Harry J. Stewardson, Thomas D. Sambrook

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Reinforcement learning in humans and other animals is driven by reward prediction errors: deviations between the amount of reward or punishment initially expected and that which is obtained. Temporal difference methods of reinforcement learning generate this reward prediction error at the earliest time at which a revision in reward or punishment likelihood is signalled, for example by a conditioned stimulus. Midbrain dopamine neurons, believed to compute reward prediction errors, generate this signal in response to both conditioned and unconditioned stimuli, as predicted by temporal difference learning. Electroencephalographic recordings of human participants have suggested that a component named the feedback-related negativity (FRN) is generated when this signal is carried to the cortex. If this is so, the FRN should be expected to respond equivalently to conditioned and unconditioned stimuli. However, very few studies have attempted to measure the FRN’s response to unconditioned stimuli. The present study attempted to elicit the FRN in response to a primary aversive stimulus (electric shock) using a design that varied reward prediction error while holding physical intensity constant. The FRN was strongly elicited, but earlier and more transiently than typically seen, suggesting that it may incorporate other processes than the midbrain dopamine system.
Original languageEnglish
Article number19912
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2021

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